Back in 2007, I was approached by the editor of one of those "philosophy and..." volumes -- and "The Big Lebowski," and "Seinfeld," and "The Matrix," you know the genre -- and asked to contribute an essay on what philosophy can teach you about your cat. It immediately struck me that my cat could almost certainly teach me more about both philosophy and about life than philosophy could teach me about pretty much anything. Of course, this judgment has been formed through over thirty years in academic philosophy in North America, a rarefied and highly idiosyncratic discipline that most of the time seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with real life or the actual pursuit of wisdom. Academic philosophers devote a troublingly large proportion of their time and energy to insulating themselves from the gritty realities of life, their modus operandi being to seek a transcendent realm of rational purity that hovers above the world of embodied experience. That's where I have always felt that the cats I've lived with have something important to teach me: they have constantly reminded me that I am an embodied, vulnerable, decidedly mortal being, and that -- contrary to the repeated insistence of philosophers from Aristotle onward--my existence is of no greater significance in the cosmic scheme of things than the life of any nonhuman animal.
In the essay I wrote for that volume on cats, I told the story of how Pindar, the cat who lives with me now, insinuated himself into my life. In a small town about 10 miles from where I live, a student of mine had found Pindar at the barn where she kept her horse. And he was a mess. He wasn't one of the regular barn cats, but appeared to be a transient, and he needed immediate medical attention. He was emaciated, he had serious eye and ear problems, and his front paws were either burned or cut and one of them had a lima bean-sized tumor growing out of the wound. My student called me on a Saturday afternoon and informed me that she had brought him up to campus in a cat carrier but that she couldn't keep him because she lived in the dorms. I told her to take the cat to the emergency veterinary hospital, and I said that I would pay the bill if she would be sure to find the cat a home.
This was a moment at which I wasn't quite ready to take in a stray. My cats Ajax and Cleo, a brother and sister act whom I had acquired about twenty years earlier, had each passed away within the past couple of years, after a long and very fruitful collaboration with me. I was still in mourning and, truth be told, was rather enjoying being in charge of my living space after all those years of feline domination. (I'm a sucker and let them ride roughshod over me.) So I wasn't prepared for the phone call I received from my student several hours after telling her to take the new-found stray to the vet: "Well, so I'm here with the vet, and he says that in addition to all the other problems, the cat has feline AIDS and feline leukemia. And he says we should just put the cat to sleep right now." In a split second a great deal of my life and my work on the moral status of animals flashed before my mind's eye, and then I heard the following words emerge from my mouth like Pallas Athena out of Zeus's head: "No. Tell the vet to treat the cat as well as he can, and I'll come pick him up tomorrow and he will be mine." And the selfish part of me did not feel in the least good about it.
Human beings, like probably most any sentient creature, live their lives engaged in a struggle between the selfish part and the other-regarding part of their natures. The selfish part requires no explanation. A simple look either outward or inward tells us more than we need to know about the role played by selfishness in life. When it comes to "other-regarding" tendencies, such as compassion, altruism, and respect, we human beings have an overwhelming tendency to be self-congratulatory and tell ourselves that among all living beings, we alone are capable of truly other-regarding sentiments, thoughts, and behavior. This tendency is part of a larger phenomenon known as anthropocentrism, the idea that human beings are the central, morally most significant being in creation; according to the anthropocentric ideal that has persisted in Western thought from Aristotle to the present, not only are human beings morally preeminent in the cosmic scheme, but animals and nonsentient nature (trees, ecosystems, oceans, etc.) are fundamentally morally inferior to human beings and on some accounts are nothing more than instrumentalities that exist simply to satisfy human needs and desires. It is this kind of thinking that has led to the rapid depletion of fish from our oceans, gruesome experiments performed on animals in the name of human health and welfare, the confinement and brutalization of animals as captive entertainment in zoos and circuses, the use of animals as forced labor, and the virtual torture of animals on the factory farms that produce 98% of the animal flesh consumed in the United States. All this to satisfy the desires of us sophisticated, other-regarding, morally superior beings.
Meanwhile, I'm sitting here wondering why we human beings insist on confining our other-regarding concern to our fellow human beings, if indeed we engage in other-regarding behavior even with regard to them. All this talk about concern for others often seems as hollow when it comes to our relations with other human beings as it seems when we are talking about our treatment of nonhuman animals. I just can't escape the sense that we are a whole lot more selfish than we are willing to acknowledge, that we are a much better fit for our stereotype of nonhuman animals than animals themselves are. Consider Pindar. The day I went to the veterinarian to pick up my new dependent, what I found was not some lower, bestial thing that with sufficient medical care and recuperation would turn into a captive toy to amuse me. What I found was a sick, troubled, disoriented, sentient creature trying to make sense out of what was happening to him. When I got him home I had an experience wildly at odds with the experience I had had with Ajax and Cleo, both of whom had been born in captivity and specifically in safe, healthy, comfortable circumstances. Truth be told, I didn't know anything about this new stray's life history, but it was pretty clear that he wasn't feral: In spite of his seriously compromised health, an unfamiliar environment, and my smiling but to him completely strange face, from the very start this cat exhibited a distinctive personality and a need to establish an emotional bond with me. Even during the first days at my house, when his system was disturbed by the various medications I was administering to deal with the three kinds of intestinal parasite that were plaguing his system, this cat, whom I named Pindar, expressed a very clear desire for me to be near him.
Naturally the fact that animals such as Pindar do not share the bond of human language with us makes it impossible to "prove" that they have rich inner states of awareness and a complex emotional makeup. But even a little time spent with a creature such as Pindar ought to make the suggestion that they don't seem preposterous. This became even clearer to me as Pindar's wounds healed, his various diseases subsided, and he got himself cleaned up. When I picked up Pindar at the vet, the first thing I noticed was that he stank to high heaven--hence no surprise when I discovered that my student had checked him into the vet hospital under the name "Smelly Cat." For the first several months he lived with me, I was convinced that Pindar's chest was beige, only to realize after quite some time had gone by that his chest is a pristine white. Along with this improvement in his physical condition came a palpable change in his personality and his overall bearing. He had been gregarious from the start, but he had also been what my students would call a bit "sketchy"-- moody, occasionally irascible, just generally running hot and cold. After regaining his health and growing accustomed to me and his new surroundings, his true personality came into full bloom. He is a decidedly friendly, curious, affectionate cat. But he also has very clear likes and dislikes, just like, I dare say, any human being. He does not fancy himself a lap cat. He loves to chase and brawl. He insists on sitting between my wife and me when we are on the sofa, and on sleeping between my wife and me at night. He is a most enthusiastic eater.